Review: Tyrant's Blessing
Despite what seems to have become de rigeur for the gaming industry, making a game a roguelike is not actually cruise control for making it a game with endless content. In fact, I can think of a lot of games lately that have tried to keep themselves engaging by making themselves into roguelikes when neither the narrative nor the mechanics really benefit all that much from this development.
Tyrant’s Blessing is definitely up-front about its roguelike inspirations and its overall goal in terms of design. It is a strategy RPG with some randomization of your party and your course as you progress toward a singular goal, with your exact ludonarrative changing each time you take a different party on the march. But is it a game that generally works well within these restrictions, or is it one of those cases wherein the game would be better served by simply having more limited content that produces a more fixed narrative experience?
Obviously, you can find out for yourself when the game launches on PC via Steam on August 8th. Or you can read this review and find out what I think of the matter. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?
The broad strokes of the story are very clearly laid out right from the start in the game’s tutorial. Lyndal, the rightful queen, is dealing with a major problem in the land of Tyberia. The eponymous Tyrant arrived with a promise of eternal life without war, hunger, or sorrow – by forcing everyone into his undead army wherein everyone would be bound to him by magic. Thus, almost overnight Lyndal became the leader of a small resistance force trying to take back Tyberia from the Tyrant.
What follows, then, are a series of small vignettes between the characters. Your goal is the same every single time – dethrone the Tyrant and take your land back from the undead hordes rampaging across it. As you clear missions, every mission tells a small story about a given skirmish with undead forces, from rescuing would-be treasure hunters searching the land for odd relics to saving farmers eking out a living to simply dealing with land mines the undead have scattered. Between missions your characters can have conversations, teaching you more about who they are and what they value the most.
Unfortunately, it’s not all terribly compelling. The basic story setup is a solid one, but because of the closed-off nature of every individual mission, it doesn’t feel like any of them build toward a larger narrative. For example, there’s a recurring mission wherein the party has to rescue a specific named character, Freya, who is wounded and surrounded by the undead. She has dialogue and interactions with the party… but after the mission she just scarpers off and the party encourages her to do so, instead of forming a bond or bringing her with them.
This is not helped much by the fact that the early missions repeat pretty often, so as you replay the opening stages you see the same things happening more than once. Yes, you start to get a sense for the map layout and how they work, but if you always know the same thing is going to come around every time, it loses that sense of interest. Especially when it’s easy to wind up getting blindsided and have to start over from the beginning again.
So it’s a solid setup, but unfortunately, it doesn’t really deliver on that promise from a narrative standpoint. It comes close, but doesn’t quite manage it.
Fortunately, the game’s roguelike nature offers it a potential save. After all, the game doesn’t need to have the most engaging plot if the battle mechanics work well. And it’s here where the game strikes an interesting balance, one I wasn’t altogether fond of but does certainly have a charm.
First, let’s get the weaknesses out of the way. Maps are always an 8×8 grid with various things scattered around the layout, from barriers to hedges to trees to water. Fortunately for the game, while this setup is a bit on the simplistic side, it makes up for that simplicity with density of impact. You can create smoke, fires, and so forth across the map, destroy certain bits of scenery, leap or dash into cover, and so forth. Your party will initially consist of three characters and one pet, with each pet having one active ability and each character having two, plus an added slot for an item.
Every turn, you move your characters freely and use their abilities, with the areas enemies are going to attack clearly marked in red outlines. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean moving out of the outline will save you; if you’re targeted by an enemy attack, you’ll leave a Shade behind if you move out of the range. That means you have to rely on other tricks to get out of the way, like creating temporary absorption shields to soak the hit, pushing the enemy out of the way so they’re attacking open air (or another enemy), or just killing the enemy before it attacks.
Also unfortunately, killing an enemy isn’t permanent right away, since while enemies have a small health pool (as do characters) they’ll respawn at full health a limited number of times per battle. So battles become a race of trying to avoid damage and stop enemy attacks as you run down the enemy resurrections.
The interesting part of this is that it creates a novel sense of different tactics. Killing enemies isn’t difficult, but your own party can’t really tank many hits, and your adventure ends as soon as one of your party members dies. (You get resurrection charges as you play though the game, but those are also limited and only leave you at 1 HP.) Pushing enemies around and defending your own party can be just as important, as is making use of environmental effects. This creates an interesting sort of tactical blend as you move through the map in which the most damage is not necessarily your most pressing goal at any given time.
If you’ve read my other tactical RPG reviews, though, you might note that this is a style I’m not tremendously fond of. I like having more choice in how I build my characters and the strategies I want to deploy, and while the ensuing tactical depth is interesting, it comes at the cost of control. While everyone can equip one item with its own uses, it’s random which items you get access to at any given time, just like the game encourages you to randomize who you have in your party with each run. It’s even random when you recruit new party members.
But that doesn’t mean this is a bad setup. It is, in fact, designed well and sets itself up nicely to give you a limited but interesting tactical challenge each time around. It’s just going to be a bit less pleasant to anyone who wants or expects more control over the play environment.
Visually, the game is absolutely gorgeous, with expressive and distinct sprite work throughout. The characters are very distinct and well-drawn, and the landscapes and all their little details flicker and move in satisfying fashion. I really liked the range of different enemies even if most of them are, functionally, rather similar in the end (albeit with notable differences in ability).
The one critique I have of the game’s look is that the text and windows of the UI look a bit out-of-place, oddly bare-bones in a game that places so much emphasis on visual style in its pixel art. Like they had a solid artist but not a great UI designer. It’s not complex or unclear, it’s definitely fully functional, it just looks a bit more like an early draft.
The sound effects are strong and memorable, including the groans of the undead, but the music sadly doesn’t really stick in my memory. It’s all good enough and setting-appropriate, but it was nothing that I found myself humming along to as I played.
Ultimately, my test for any roguelike game is whether or not the game sticks to the ribs in the way it needs to, if it leaves you with that addictive feeling of just wanting to try one more run. I am sorry to say that Tyrant’s Blessing doesn’t get there for me, and part of that is just in the little details. The uniform map size, the narrowness of tactical options, the randomness in party member availability, the lack of story cohesion… all of it just kept me from really getting into the game, even though I dearly wanted to.
Still, if you really like tactical RPGs like this, it’s a different style of play and it has some noteworthy potential in how its gameplay is delivered. I don’t dislike the game; I just wish it did a little bit better on delivering on its promise. That’s by nature going to be a very subjective statement, and it isn’t a bad game, but I think anyone who isn’t looking for a new strategy RPG experiment will find this one a bit underwhelming.
But hey, if the narrow options and the promise of roguelike gameplay interests you, this is one to check out all the same. It’s not bad, by any means. Just doesn’t really light you on fire.
Game provided by Freedom Games for purposes of evaluation. Screenshots courtesy of Freedom Games and the reviewer.